A Moral Commitment to Our Children - Choices and Investments

One day, a few years ago the president of a leading national foundation attended a Brotherhood rites-of-passage workshop. Founded in 1995, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a youth development program that serves children, mostly from the neighborhood of Harlem, in New York City. We offer long term, comprehensive and holistic services, surrounding our members with education and developmental programming. Refusing to choose between the usually polarized values, we provide support, guidance and love, as we teach discipline and order. Essential to our process and demonstrated successful outcomes are access and real opportunities that enable our members to develop agency and grow.

On this day, a group of seven or eight alumni members had returned to work with a group of nearly 20 teenaged members. This was one example, among many, of our male alumni returning to support the younger generation. They spent over two hours talking about the central issues they faced -- in their communities, their families, in their schools and in society in general. The culmination of the workshop was that together, these young Black and Latino men, ages 15-23, created a "Survival Guide for Black and Latino Young Men in Harlem."

It is a powerful document that calls societal forces to task, speaks plainly about economic and racial injustice, takes responsibility for personal failures, acknowledges the lack of family support -- and yet states, unequivocally, that while recognizing these realities, and because they knew the obstacles so well, they would overcome them and be successful; there would be no excuses. It was one of many powerful sessions -- the kind of unique power that comes from harnessing the passion, truth and vision of young people, of providing space for exposure, investigation and reflection and then directing it.

It was a hot June day, and the room where the session was held was in a school building in East Harlem. The large windows of the classroom looked out onto a busy thoroughfare and housing projects as far as the eye could see -- East Harlem being the area of the United States most densely populated by public housing. Through this window one could see rolling traffic, famous graffiti walls, elevated trains, school children walking home, hard working people working and also crews of young men, some merely hanging out, some smoking weed or drinking, some possibly selling drugs and invariably some gang affiliated.

The visiting president of the foundation was struck by what he saw in the room that afternoon, and he asked a powerful question of one of the recent alumni members. He pointed to the group of young men on the corner and said: "Why are they out there?" And then turned his finger to the young men in the room and finished, "While you are in here?" The alumni member the question was directed towards is a son of Harlem. He is a first generation American born to Dominican immigrant parents. He graduated from the very high school where the group sat at that time, and now had returned as a teacher, a model. When he graduated he had never read a complete book as a school assignment. Never. His mother worked as a cleaning woman, sweeping the Ivy League floors of Columbia University, a few blocks away but in reality worlds away from their Harlem home. At the time this story occurred he was a sophomore at Brown University, another Ivy League school. This alumni member responded: "They are in here. And we are out there."

Much of the national dialogue on juvenile justice focuses on cases where juveniles have committed atrocious, heinous acts of violence, acts that clearly demand that the adolescent be secured in some kind of facility. This essay does not focus on these cases. Such incidents do not represent the majority of crimes for which young people are incarcerated in our country. Instead, all too many youth are being incarcerated for low-level criminal activity, non-violent drug offenses and situations in which alternatives to incarceration are possible, in which socio-economic conditions along, poor choices and subjective policing, have led to incarceration. We have found, over nearly twenty years, that by providing the skills to change one's conditions and by helping young people to learn critical thinking skills, the vast majority will choose a proper path. There is a fine line between a young person who commits a low level criminal act and can be taught to correct his/her life, or even a young person who is on the verge of such acts, and a young person who crosses over that line, committing acts that lead to incarceration. I want to focus here on that line.

We have had members who have sold drugs. We have had members who have joined gangs. We have had members who have used illegal drugs. We have had members who have committed robberies. With the proper supports, with guidance, with high-level representation when arrested, they have all chosen alternative paths of life. No member or alumni member of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) is in prison or jail, no member is on parole, and only two, out of hundreds, are on probation.

Bro/Sis works in economically distressed communities and we engage in no sifting when choosing our membership. All who want to be a part of Bro/Sis can be a part -- our membership represents the diversity of Harlem and we work with a population that ranges between the ages of 8-22, with the majority being 12-18 years of age. Nearly 80 percent of our young people come from single parent homes. Some of our youth come from stable homes where their parent(s) provide a nurturing environment and we are another hand in raising the child. Others come from families destroyed by the social ills of our times, by drugs, incarceration, homelessness, poverty and in some cases simply poor parenting. For these children, we may be the most stable element in their lives. Yet, no matter the family, all of our members face risks that can lead to them being incarcerated. They all walk the same streets that are inundated with drugs and violence, and all are confronted with the same damaging images of masculinity and femininity -- with "manhood" defined as primarily a capacity for violence and emotional irresponsibility, and "womanhood" defined as passivity and sexual objectification. Our members attend schools that are almost all in a state of sustained mediocrity at best, or at worst, a chaotic holding facility. All of our youth are confronted with invasive policing and are afforded few job opportunities. Relentlessly faced with these negative forces and pressures, all are, in the phrase of James Baldwin, "expected to make peace with mediocrity."

In response, we surround our members with positive forces and opportunities. Bro/Sis operates like a well-constructed family, with levels of responsibility and tiered achievement, with high expectations and guidance on how to reach them, with caring adults who represent different examples of success and are committed, wholeheartedly and without question, to our members' success and interests. We provide single gendered rites of passage programming over a period of four to six years during which our members define manhood or womanhood, leadership and brotherhood or sisterhood, while honing a moral and ethical code by which to live. Our approach works.

Our society continues to spend more money on incarceration than on education. The State of New York spends up to $210,000 a year to incarcerate a child in one of its juvenile facilities; the City of New York also spends in excess of $200,000. A study of these children found that 89 percent of the boys and 81 percent of the girls were re-arrested upon release. The City of New York spends approximately $18,000 a year to educate a child. Bro/Sis spends approximately $6,000 a year per child in our program. A society invests its resources in accordance with the kind of society it wants to be.

The political discourse of the day is only beginning, and only in some quarters, to focus on our fellow citizens most in need -- the ones who fill failing schools and a pipeline to prison, who continue to feel a suffocating lack of opportunity. Yet, there is a proverb that states: It is when the riverbed is dry that we can change the flow of the river's waters. We believe youth are educated to transform their own lives when they learn the staggering odds they face, are taught the skills to overcome these odds, and are afforded the support, guidance, access and opportunities to overcome them. This work of educating youth to create change both within and without brings perspective -- an understanding of the challenge: that the force of the river is mighty, and the effort to change its flow will be massive, but to change its course, we must know where the river comes from, and the direction in which we wish to send it. With this knowledge comes a map to redirect their lives.

It is quite difficult to overcome obstacles that are unseen or unnamed. It is much like asking a runner to navigate an obstacle course with no map in hand, or even with the knowledge that the runner is in maze. If we are seeking to truly teach and empower young people to save their own lives we must hone young people's critical analysis, to delve into the systemic societal issues that are beyond the symptoms, to become change makers who question, who follow a moral and ethical code that leads away from prison walls and toward a commitment to social change and self development.

The question for us is what kind of society do we wish to be? Do we seek to be a moral and ethical society? Do we want to live in a society that recognizes that many young people will make mistakes, and may commit crimes, but that if they are not egregious we must believe in redemption through alternatives to incarceration? Do we want a society of equal and equitable policing and enforcement of the law? Or instead, do want to continue policies that are unsustainable, economically and morally?

Will we recognize that we cannot incarcerate children at a cost of $210,000 in facilities that display a recidivism rate nearing 90 percent, that we cannot continue to have the largest prison population in the world, that we cannot maintain a school to prison pipeline, that we cannot continue to place children in environments where they have such limited access and opportunity and resources, where they are unfairly and over-policed, because it is immoral and inhumane? We know that with the proper support systems and education, with guidance and opportunity, those young people who stand on the precipice of engaging in illegal acts, those who are faced with a path of crime and damaging life choices, will choose another way. We know that while the necessary investments in educational and youth programs are extensive, they pale in the face of the resources presently used to incarcerate and punish these children. The choice is clear, and sharp and profound. The continued prosecution and imprisonment of our children does not speak to their lack of morality, but to our own.